OTTAWA — Liberal Senators are threatening to derail the government’s consumer product safety reforms over concerns that the legislation aimed to protect Canadians from unsafe products gives Health Canada inspectors too much power over businesses.
The bill passed in the House of Commons unanimously in June with the backing of all three opposition parties, but now the person stickhandling the bill in the Senate for the Liberal caucus said this “intrusive way of dealing with product safety” and “heavy-handed approach to a problem” must be tempered.
“I’m at the stage where I hope that I can illustrate that there are going to have to be some amendments. Hopefully, either they withdraw this legislation or they come forward with appropriate amendments so we don’t have a mess here,” Liberal Senator Joseph Day said an in interview.
The bill is set to undergo scrutiny at a Senate committee beginning this week, and must pass the upper chamber, where Liberals have a majority of the seats, before becoming law.
Day supports the provision in the bill that grants the government the power to order mandatory product recalls. Currently, Health Canada cannot force a company to recall a product, leaving it up to the business to issue a voluntary recall under Canada’s 40-year-old Hazardous Products Act, universally panned as outdated.
But Day, in a public split from his Liberal colleagues in the House of Commons, said other key provisions in the bill granting sweeping powers to the health minister and departmental inspectors appear unconstitutional — and unfair to businesses.
“Do we really want to go in this direction?” asked Day, referring to the “considerable power” granted to government inspectors “to interfere in the lives of business people.”
Under the proposed act, the health minister will have the authority to order a supplier to conduct safety tests and submit results if the minister deems it necessary.
The minister could also disclose confidential business information without notice in the event of a serious or imminent danger to human health, while departmental inspectors would be permitted to conduct spot inspections and stop production or distribution if they believe such a step is needed to protect Canadians.
“I did not object to the government having the authority to order a recall that they didn’t have in the past, but I would like to see more judicial scrutiny before some of these various people who are working for the minister of health can go in and interfere in normal business activity,” said Day.
The hard line from the Liberals in the Senate is a marked departure from the position of Liberal MPs.
In response to letters from Canadians concerned about the bill, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, Liberal health critic, is sending out correspondence defending the legislation, saying it is “sensible” for government to “have more power to inspect and test products once health and safety concerns in relation to products have been identified. Our members of Parliament thoroughly studied the bill in committee to make sure it serves the best interests of all Canadians.”
Emphasizing the bill passed the House of Commons unanimously, Tim Vail, director of communications for Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, said the legislation “is about equipping government with the tools needed to act quickly and effectively to protect Canadians. Minister Aglukkaq calls on all Senators to support our legislation and help protect Canadian families.”
Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, which lobbied to scrap Canada’s “antiquated” system of consumer protection in favour of the proposed approach, was more blunt. He said the Liberal position in the Senate is “completely disconnected from reality” and the Senate should “get a move on and pass the darn thing.”
“Our current system is not up to the job. The federal government lacks important powers, and surely it is one of the most basic expectations of our government that they make sure stuff that we’re buying in the marketplace isn’t going to hurt and maim our children. And here we are, the Senate is dilly dallying,” said Smith.
Day knows he’s entering into a political minefield by attacking the popular reform package, but is unapologetic.
“It would be very easy to say, ‘The public wants this, let’s get on with this, and we’ll jump on the bandwagon.’ But that’s not our role in the Senate and I think it’s our role to point out the flaws, the concerns, the possible repercussions of passing incomplete and flawed legislation.”
The legislation has already been amended by members of Parliament to increase parliamentary transparency over the product-safety file. If passed as amended by the House of Commons, both houses of Parliament will be consulted on regulations that will be created under that act and an expert advisory committee will be created to oversee the legislation’s implementation.
“I think we felt like we improved the bill a little bit,” Bennett said in an interview. “I think in terms of the principles of the bill, we were comfortable with the bill as it is.”
This is the second attempt to modernize Canada’s 40-year old product safety law. The Conservative government first introduced the bill in April 2008, but it died when an election was called last fall.